Alexandra Beckstein, CEO of QAI Ventures, and Damir Bogdan, CEO of Quantum Basel, are interviewed by Yuval Boger. Alexandra and Damir describe the Basel ecosystem, their privately-funded accelerator program, and efforts to promote deindustrialization in Switzerland through technology and sustainability. They also describe quantum computer installations in Basel, the efforts to democratize quantum technology, the challenges in rapid development and global collaboration, and much more.


Yuval Boger: Hello, Alexandra.Hello,  Damir.Thank you so much for joining me today.

Alexandra Beckstein: Hi, Yuval

Yuval: So Alexandra, who are you and what do you do?

Alexandra: I’m Alexandra, and I’m heading a company called QAIVentures. QAI stands for Quantum and AI. We are based in Basel. We were born out of an innovation ecosystem called Uptown Basel. And what we do is we invest in startups that develop quantum technology and we also work with the startups in kind of an accelerator.

Yuval: And Damir, who are you, and what do you do?

Damir Bogdan: My name is Damir Bogdan. I’m a computer scientist, and I’m the CEO of Quantum Basel. Quantum Basel is the technology part of the innovation campus Uptown Basel. Uptown Basel is dedicated to doing something against the deindustrialization of a nation like Switzerland. It’s entirely privately funded, and it’s dedicated to the term of sustainability. And sustainability attracts technology companies. And when you talk about long-term investment, you have to think about quantum computing. This is why we started Quantum Basel as a hub for quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

Yuval: And what is the relationship between QAIVentures and Quantum Basel?

Damir: We are all part of the innovation campus and we closely work together. So our mission is to democratize access to quantum computing. So our aim is to seek industries in the field of logistics, financial services, industry 4.0 or in the long-term life science. And we want to collaborate with those kinds of companies. We have a bunch of quantum hardware providers like IBM, D-Wave system, or IonQ. And then it’s not just about hardware. Together with our quantum physicists, we also need clever software solutions. And this is where Alexandra comes in. I would say we are kind of adding each other. So we developed in parallel, I would say, on the campus of Uptown Basel.

Alexandra: And actually, this is a very good question, Yuval, because a lot of people ask us this question. What is your relationship and what do you both do? So maybe from the development point of view, first Quantum Basel was developed bringing quantum computing to the industry. And then we kind of got a step back and we thought, okay, now we can bring quantum computing to the industry, but we first also have to develop the technology. And we also in parallel have to develop the market. And in Europe, the technology is mainly developed by startups. So what we did is then we went a step back and we decided to build the technology development around startups. This is why we raised this fund. This is why we founded an accelerator as a real instrument of developing the technology of building up an ecosystem that allows us to connect the startups with corporate partners, with other venture capital, and with the academia players to first develop the technology in parallel to the market.

Yuval: And why Basel? Why not Zurich, Geneva or Bern?

Damir: Why Basel? Did you ask this question to an IBM, to an HP, or to Intel as well? Well, one could say the garage was there. So our garage, where we have been born, is the innovation campus and it’s privately funded with 500 million Swiss francs by the family of Thomas and Monique Stijellin. And they are old citizens of the city of Basel. And Thomas is on multiple boards of directors. And he came to the opportunity to buy this area. And together with the area developer Hans-Jerg Funghauser, he started this endeavor for Industry 4.0. And you’ve heard the sum he invested. So we are not here for a short-term investment. We are looking for long-term investments. And this is why we also have to talk about quantum computing. So Basel is why our companies have been born there. Plus, for sure, it’s near life science. Many life science companies are around in Basel. It’s a good part to be in the industrialization part of Switzerland. So I also think the proximity to universities is very good.

Yuval: Damir, you mentioned that this is privately funded. Many other European countries have government funding and very substantial programs, whether it’s France, Germany, or the UK. Is there a Swiss national program, or is the primary money source in Switzerland for quantum private money?

Damir: I would tackle three points and then hand it over to Alexandra as well. First of all, yes, we are completely aware that other countries are investing billions in the development of quantum computing. And I just this week had a call with the UN and with Italy and even there, there are billions, Germany, France, UK. In Switzerland it’s a 10 million program dedicated for NCCR spin at the University of Basel over five years. So that makes 50 million. And it’s now the dedication to go up perhaps 200 million with other programs. However, even if it’s 100 million, this is still billions away from the other countries. So our aim with the 500 million was not to go into quantum purely quantum computing. And it can’t be that one single investor has to invest in such a technology. But yes, we clearly lack governmental support, at least financial wise. But what we also have to add, of course, the government invests a lot in universities like ETH and the EPFL in Lausanne, Lausanne, and Zurich. This is also governmental money and these sums never show up in any calculation. So if we are fair, we should also add this. So there is some governmental support maybe, but not maybe framed like in the other countries.

Yuval: Alexandra, you mentioned an accelerator, and I believe that the first cohort of companies in the accelerator recently graduated. Could you tell us a little bit about the companies in the first accelerator and perhaps what you’re hoping to achieve in the next cohort?

Alexandra: Yes, sure. So in the first cohort, we accelerated, we started with five startups. We ended up with four startups. It’s not a big number. We also started to test what we developed. We had very good feedback. So I think we did a good job in the first cohort. What we try to do with the accelerator is, as I mentioned before, to build an ecosystem. So we focus on startups that can have added value from us and that we can have added value from. That means that we can connect to corporate partners, academia partners, and so on. So the first startup we worked with was Kipu. They’re doing algorithm development. The second startup we worked with is Anaqor. Anaqor is a very interesting company developing a platform where algorithm developers can share their algorithms and where potential customers can use these algorithms. Then we worked with QDC from Poland that are the QDC AI they are called. They are working on optimization problems. The fourth startup is Moonlight AI. Moonlight AI was also an interesting case for us as they came not originally out of the field of quantum. They are a Matic startup. They work with AI, and they wanted to join the accelerator program to accelerate their AI approach in machine learning with quantum. And that worked out quite well. 

So we are very happy with what we achieved. Within this cohort, there were three partnerships made amongst the startups. This is exactly what we want. Yeah. And of course we built up now strongly in the next cohort, we will have I hope 8 to 10 startups. We are starting globally. We accelerate globally. So we are very happy with every application we get. We aim to find good corporations for the customer, be it amongst them, but most important collaboration between the startups and customers.

Damir: And while circling back to your previous question about the collaboration between QAI Venture and Quantum Basel, we, from our side, then provided the technology access to quantum computers to some of those startups. And we also, with our quantum physicists, we helped them to develop some algorithms, and with Moonlight AI, we are also very proud in two weeks, the first week of December, we will present a joint research case at the Q2B in San Francisco. So this is also coming all together.

Yuval: You mentioned providing access to computers. Is that access only on the cloud, or do you also envision on-premise computers?

Damir: Today, we are a global innovation quantum hub partner of IBM. So we’ve got access to their premium quantum systems. Besides that, D-Wave system opened up its European offices at our campus and we got cloud access there. So the vision there we will see. And the third is IonQ, and they opened their European headquarters at our campus. Plus, from 24 onwards, we will have a physical system of IonQ, which will be the first IonQ installation in Europe. I’m also very proud to add that, that IonQ also agreed up on doing part of the R&D for the future, Telpo system out of Switzerland. And this will be developed here, partially in Switzerland, on our campus and we also inaugurated for the first time here. So we’ve got both cloud, and from 24 onwards, it will be the end of 24 onsite on-prem access.

Yuval: Alexandra, I believe that Basel is not too far from France. And is there an opportunity to collaborate with some of the French companies or French quantum centers?

Alexandra: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, as soon as I entered the quantum world, my entrance door was actually France because France is so close, as you say, and France already has an excellent startup ecosystem. They have an excellent venture capitalist with Quantonation, excellent network possibilities by Le Lab-Quantique, and a lot of corporates that are already using quantum and having first use cases. So they also have excellent universities. The closest university from France we are collaborating is Strasbourg. But of course, there is a lot of differences, there is a lot of more good academia in France. Whatever startup approaches, you asked for possible collaborations with France, right? So the network we are building is global, and the startups we are scouting, are global. We are really aiming for connecting the startups and we build around startups. The startups are our customers, I always say. So if there is a startup and we see a good connection to a company in France, there is a high possibility that we have contact with them and make the connection. Yes, very much.

Yuval: The mere building of quantum Basel required a pretty bold vision into the future. So as you look two or three years into the future, what is your vision? What is the quantum puzzle going to look like in 24 or 36 months?

Damir: From looking to the past and being asked the same question, I must say if I envision what will be in three years, then I guess it will happen next year because this is what happens to us. When we started, when we got the approval from the family to start with quantum Basel, this was not even 12 months ago, then we envisioned starting with one quantum access to have perhaps one or two projects running and then the year after to build up more partnerships and then perhaps in three years time an onsite system to have another hub global partnerships. We all did that within the first 12 months. We’ve got finished use cases with huge conglomerates from France, for example, where we are right now in discussion to take it into production, so we will have real world production use case here. 

We already have all these three quantum accesses and we started with a global partnership, be it with research institutes in the East and the West, be it with companies who are helping us to get to the right customers because we are a small startup. We are a small company. We don’t have even 20 employees right now. We’ve got good people, but they help us to get to the market as Alexandra explained before. It’s on the one side developing, but it’s also to kind of evangelize and to talk about that. So, but to come to a point as well, I guess if you ask me in three years what would be in three years, I hope we will have at least two systems on-site. I hope that I will be able to talk about 20 use cases in production already and more conducted as a proof of concept. So this is where I am aiming towards as well as becoming a global partner of other research institutes and academia partners. So there are just many things on the line, and yeah, I could continue.

Yuval: And Alexandra, maybe the same question to you.

Alexandra: Yeah, it’s a nice question because of course, we asked ourselves the same, where do we want to be and where do we want to go, and how do we want to get there? So we, QAI Ventures, as an ecosystem builder, see ourselves as an enabler of the development of quantum technology. That means we need or want to find the best startups and give them the best support possible to develop their technology to enter a market, to create a market also. It means that we, of course, develop our program further, and we also want and will develop the program in a way that we step into the projects, into the startups before it’s even a startup, we step into much earlier. So we also want to go also in the field of venture building.

We will also go into regions, or we were invited to go into regions where there are no quantum ecosystems, not developed as in Europe. So we would like to have some spin-offs in other parts of the world. And what we also see right now we have a fund that is able to invest in startups from pre-sit to series A. It’s a 50 million fund, that’s not a lot. Our vision is to be able to offer the whole vision from lab to IPO. And for this, we need different programs, we need bigger funds, we need more funds, we need more investment instruments, and this is exactly what we are now working on building up. And of course, a very important question for us is also, and that comes along now with the development, where do we go, how do we enter different markets, is also being involved actively in shaping some ethical questions of quantum technology. This comes along. This is of course, not a goal. This is also happening aside, always happening aside.

Yuval: And as we go from the future to the present, Alexandra, then maybe Damir, professionally speaking, what keeps you up at night?

Alexandra: Oh, the development of the future. So I need to say a lot of my colleagues and friends, they ask me, “Are you not stressed? Are you not stressed out that you have to deal with so much money and that you create so much development?” And I said, “No, it’s really exciting.” Every morning I wake up, and I think, “Thank God I woke up, and it’s going on. I want to go on.” I’m really still at full speed. I have a super team behind me. We have a lot of fun at work. At night, actually, nothing keeps me up. I sleep at night, but I’m always happy to go on in the morning.

Yuval: And Damir?

Damir: First of all, the flow that Alexandra just mentioned, it occurs to me as well. So I’ve got a daily phone call with my 87-year-old father and he always said, “Oh, you must be that stressed.”And I said, “No, I’m not stressed. I just have lots of work to do, but any flow, it’s all good.” So sometimes, what keeps me up at night are the calls with other continents because we are doing local partnerships. So right now, my stand-in is in Japan, and right now, I’m preparing my next weeks to New York and afterwards to San Francisco. So when you’ve got a global steering committee, sometimes it happens to be early in the morning, late at night. But coming back to your point, what really drives me is that we haven’t had the kind of wake-up call that is needed to accept that quantum technologies’ potential is so huge that it will transform the industries, all industries within the next decade more than the traditional IT does over the last two or three decades. If you just think back to when the internet started, nobody knew what will be possible with it. When the iPhone came as a combination of the internet and mobile phone, nobody knew what can be done with it. And today we are in the same thing.

We are in this symbiosis between AI and quantum computing. Quantum computing fires up AI, and this is why Alexandra’s ethical points are very important. And having said so, one can’t foresee what will change and how fast it will change. And therefore, what keeps me up at night or perhaps it’s not at night, but what drives me, if I may reframe the question, is that we have to have this wake-up call, this iPhone moment for quantum computing is not here yet, but we have to step in, we have to engage, we have to learn, we have to teach, we have to make our hands wet and we have all we have to do. And I hope that Switzerland will be at the forefront of this.

Yuval: Before we get to the last question, I do want to mention that I think you’d also have access to a neutral-atom computer, which is probably the best fit for Switzerland anyway, being a neutral country. But more seriously to my last question, a hypothetical, if you could have dinner, Damir, with one of the quantum greats dead or alive, who would that be? So, perhaps Damir and then Alexandra.

Damir: You know, we conducted the US-Swiss Quantum Symposium this March with 20 very bright minds, professors from the US and Switzerland. We are very looking forward to conducting the first global quantum symposium with researchers and industry-balanced mid-March next year here in Basel. And during that, I already had the opportunity to have lunch with some of the really bright minds mentioning Chris Monroe, former IONQ, but also here in Basel, we’ve got great minds like Daniel Loss. But for sure, the unknown is perhaps the one which would be the most promising. So I’m really thrilled to listen sometimes to talks by Alan Aspect, with the notion of why not go with that the real quantum advantage may lay in its energy consumption, be it 10,000 times more efficient. So perhaps Alan Aspect.

Alexandra: That would be doable, I guess. Actually, I have to admit, I know you always ask this question, and I have not prepared, but I just remember, I mean, I read a book about Schrodinger. He was quite a very strong character, and I love strong characters and I’m also interested, yeah, what it needs to think quantum. So I would like to meet Schrodinger one day somewhere, somehow.

Yuval: Very good. So Alexandra, and Damir, thank you so much for joining me today.

Damir: Thank you for inviting us.

Yuval Boger is the chief marketing officer for QuEra, the leader in neutral-atom quantum computers. Known as the “Superposition Guy” as well as the original “Qubit Guy,” he can be reached on LinkedIn or at this email.

January 15, 2024